Sonya clenched her fists tightly, her eyes burning with determination as she spoke.
“You probably don’t know how many rumors were circulating in the Imperial Palace while Lady Vanessa was away! Those rumors were all lies. Lady Vanessa needs to make it clear to them that you are not someone anyone can ignore. Everyone should admire you. Because Lady Vanessa shines with the God in the sky!”
As soon as the day dawned, Sonya made a fuss about calling back the dress designer, Ella.
After pondering, Asha concluded that Sonya was right and nodded her head.
It would surely be an uncomfortable situation for her, but it would be good to re-evaluate the nobles and identify people who could help Karaf, as well as to understand how they thought about him beforehand.
Above all, it was necessary to know in advance what they thought about Karaf.
Asha responded to the Duchess of Lilac’s invitation in elegant handwriting.
* * * * *
Early in the morning, Jackal tied his hair back into a ponytail, changed into black training clothes reminiscent of Eastern martial arts attire, and set off for the training hall with Sosa by his side.
As his eyes scanned the smooth wooden floor and the arsenal of weapons adorning the walls, a sense of unease settled over him.
This place was all too familiar, yet it was an unpleasant space.
Ever since he learned to effortlessly shift between his horse and human forms, Jackal had spent most of his days here, away from his parents.
He had trained relentlessly, mastering countless weapons and techniques: how to strike an enemy’s vital points and end them with a single breath, how to deflect and evade enemy attacks, and even how to survive if captured by the enemy – all while enduring countless injuries.
‘Don’t leave until you’ve perfected what you’ve learned today. It’s the chief’s orders.’
They were harsh words thrown by his teacher at him, who was injured and collapsed on the ground covered in sweat.
His father, ever busy defending the village, was often away and was rarely present to oversee his training.
Instead, it was left to another Kelpie warrior to oversee his progress.
Jackal gasped for air as he looked up from the ground, but his teacher turned around with a fierce expression and left the training hall.
The light above him closed, casting darkness on his face.
Outside, he could hear his mother protesting and clinging to his teacher.
When someone suggested that the training was too brutal for a young child, his teacher firmly replied that being the successor of the clan was not something anyone could become.
Jackal gritted his teeth and stood up, looking at his mother who was struggling to protect him.
With blistered hands, he grabbed his weapon and was determined to show his mother that this level of training was nothing to worry about.
He had only one thought in mind, to quickly master everything he had learned.
When he returned home, his mother held him in her arms and told him stories about the clan.
Perhaps she wanted to instill pride in her son, who had to carry the heavy burden of being the successor of the Kelpie clan and prevent him from hating his own people.
Inside the training hall, Jackal tightly closed his eyes, the faces he had seen moments ago were all gone now.
Only faint traces of his training remained throughout the place.
Perhaps even the assassin who infiltrated the palace on the day of the ceremony had trained here until the day he left for his mission.
Lost in deep thought, the village chief entered through the door behind him, followed by the top officials of each clan as usual.
Was he the one who had inspired them to be so vigilant?
Without greeting them first, Jackal just looked at them with a dry expression.
They couldn’t meet his eyes, as they must have heard about what had happened at the dining hall yesterday.
Watching their oppressed appearance, Jackal sneered slightly at the corner of his mouth.
There didn’t seem to be anyone among them who could be considered his match.
Dealing with the village chief might be a bit difficult, as he had a fire spirit, but he was much weaker in terms of stamina compared to the young and agile warriors.
If Jackal were able to harness the power of the water spirit, he would be able to far surpass the chief’s own strength.
Perhaps realizing that his time was running out, the chief was grooming other talents to take on missions in his place, like a king ruling over minority people as if they were his puppets.
“You don’t have to go through this ordinary training to become a spirit contractee. Let’s move to the next location.”
The village chief said before leaving the training hall first.
Jackal and Sosa exchanged glances before following him out.
The sky was a pale, ethereal shade of blue before the sun had risen like watercolor paint spreading through the clouds.
The dense forest was covered in dew, and the moist scent of grass wafted heavily.
They came to a place that looked like a fresh and misty valley.
In the subterranean cavern, it seemed as if the ground had been excavated to reveal a pool of enigmatic turquoise-colored water, while a slender cascade trickled down from a crevice in the wall.
Jackal peered downward.
The water was so crystal clear that he could glimpse the bottom, yet too clear to ascertain the depth.
“If you can accept a water spirit, you too will gain extraordinary power, like me.”
The village chief extended his palm.
A rose in his hand suddenly burst into flames, leaving behind nothing but black ashes that he clenched, murmuring to himself.
“Our small village needs more warriors and talented individuals. We must end the shameful disgrace and persecution that has befallen us with our own hands.”
He seemed restless to dethrone Karaf.
“Are you truly resolved to undertake the trial?”
The chief asked Jackal sternly, and he replied resolutely.
“Of course. It was my choice even before arriving.”
“Good. Then let’s begin.”
The chief gave instructions to the officials surrounding them.
“Bind his body tightly with chains.”
Sosa tried to intervene, but Jackal stopped him by placing his hand on Sosa’s shoulder.
Jackal nodded, indicating that it was okay.
As Sosa stepped back, the officials bound Jackal’s hands behind his back and secured his entire body tightly with chains, with a rock hanging at the end.
The village chief spoke.
“Since ancient times, it has been believed that this valley is protected by the water spirits. First, you must conquer your fear of water and make your soul compatible with the water spirit. Simply put, you must become one with the water.”
“Consider it a process of accepting the water and try to endure it as much as possible. If the water spirit accepts you, it will release you from your bindings.”
The village chief gave a nod to one of the officials, who then kicked the rock with his foot.
As the rock rolled down, Jackal fell into the deep water as if being pulled in.
Sosa exclaimed in surprise.
“What if he drowns!”
“Well, that just means he’s not a vessel capable of accepting the water spirit. It can’t be helped.”
Sosa was left speechless with confusion, and he listened as the other continued.
“The water spirits are known to have high emotional ups and downs and a strong childlike side. It’s even said that they enjoy playing cruel pranks and drowning people as a hobby. But if it meets a worthy master, it will lend them all of its uncontrollable energy.”
The village chief looked down at the bottom of the water, murmuring incomprehensibly.
“He won’t die. That’s for sure.”
Originally, this training was derived from a ceremony symbolizing an offering to the water spirit.
“From now on, come here to train except during meal and sleep time. After making a contract with the spirit, I will hand over the village’s confidential information.”
He instructed, giving Sosa a meaningful look.
“You will assist and monitor him closely. He may have to repeat this process countless times in the future. And if anything happens to him, it will be your turn next, so it wouldn’t hurt to be prepared.”
Sosa’s face hardened at those words.
He realized that they were treated like disposable assets like the village’s warriors.
After the officials left with the village chief, only the two of them were left.
Sosa quickly descended the stairs and looked at the water with a worried expression.
He never imagined that training would be so thoughtless and cruel.
Isn’t this almost like water torture?
The only fortunate thing was that it wasn’t winter yet.
If Jackal had received this kind of training in winter, he would not have lasted long.
Soon, bubbles rose as if he was suffocating.
Without hesitation, Sosa jumped into the water, untied the chains tied to his feet, and pulled Jackal up from the bottom of the water.
Jackal, drenched from head to toe, came out of the water wriggling.
Similar to Jackal, with a worried face, Sosa handed him a towel first and asked.
“Did you feel anything?”
“No, not even a fish, let alone a spirit”
“Well, keep up with this damn training game. We’ll take proper revenge later.”
“Yeah. I’ll just have to endure this damn training for now. I’ll get my revenge later.”
Jackal looked at the clear water with his blue eyes.
* * * * *
At that moment, Asha began to dress up with the assistance of Ella and the maids.
She didn’t want to overdo it for the tea party hosted by the Duchess of Lilac, as she didn’t want to appear ridiculous. However, she also didn’t want to dress too simply and give the impression that she wasn’t taking the gathering seriously, which could result in criticism behind her back.
To strike a balance, she decided to take Ella’s advice, as she was well-versed in social circles.
Ella was thrilled and nervous as if she had been entrusted with a precious task, and she selected a dress and jewelry with a bright hue that would accentuate Asha’s delicate figure.
“Lady Vanessa has fair skin and a slender body, so a dress with bright colors would look good while maintaining a sense of volume.”
Though Ella initially wanted to dress Asha in a red dress with a candid heart, red was too flashy and eye-catching, more suited for a ballroom than a tea party.
After much deliberation, she settled on lavender.
The dress started with a lavender hue that leaned towards white and gradually deepened into a darker purple, perfectly suited to Asha’s elegant yet mysterious image.
Having put on the dress, Asha elegantly turned her head upward and adorned it with a butterfly-shaped hairpin before heading to the balcony to mentally prepare herself before attending the Duchess of Lilac’s tea party.
However, she suddenly caught a strong scent of roses carried by the wind from behind her.
Unconsciously turning around, Asha’s eyes widened, and she froze in place.
Startled, Karaf caught her waist to prevent her from falling off the terrace.
Asha’s body was completely in contact with his, and she was frozen and unable to breathe.